That is the name of a paper I wrote in my junior year of high school. I called it “Dead White Guys” because, in large part, it was about the pantheon of writers we hold up as great: the dead white guys who grace our literature curriculums from middle school onward. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, William Golding, F. Scott Fitzgerald – even Herman Melville, who inched toward unusual progressivism for a nineteenth century dude before backsliding pretty decisively into tired racist clichés. We grow up on a steady diet of a particular type of writing lauded as magnificent: colonial white men’s writing. We are derided when we say we don’t like classic literature – but what vaults some books over others; what makes the classics classic?
Great books must be well-written. They must be captivating and provide glimpses into unique worlds, tied to ours by the commonality of human experience. But the dead white guys we read in class represent a uniform point of view, one that is far-removed from the realities of people who aren’t, well, dead white guys.
How would a Black woman have fared in Hester Prynne’s place, within the world of The Scarlet Letter? Not well, according to the historical record. Racism was rampant in seventeenth-century Massachusetts, where a Black and Indigenous woman named Tituba was the first person to fall victim to the witchcraft hysteria which gripped Salem around Prynne’s time.
If Jay Gatsby had been Indigenous, would his Roaring 20s have been filled with the same wealth and prestige as they were in Fitzgerald’s book? Almost certainly not: the brutal governmental practice of forcing Indigenous children into residential schools, where they suffered abuse and were made to recant their cultural beliefs, was in full swing during the 1920s, despite reports that the schools were causing great harm to Indigenous communities.
If literature is taught in order to expand the world views of students, why then do curriculums stubbornly stick to the same tired set of books? In class, my brother is reading the same things I did nine or ten years ago. That is unacceptable, given the burst of literary brilliance displayed by nonwhite authors is recent years. Given books like River Solomon’s lyrical African fantasy The Deep, or Jesmyn Ward’s poignant Sing, Unburied, Sing, why do we stick to reading Lord of the Flies and Fahrenheit 451? Why are the classics regarded as immutable?
Age is not always a marker of greatness, and certainly that is true for the books in high school literature curriculum – books written by people who embodied privilege, people who often expressly insulted and excluded from their works anyone who wasn’t a white man. Rudyard Kipling was an unabashed imperialist who compared Filipinos to wild uncivilised children. The Great Gatsby contains a cackling antisemitic caricature. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn takes hundreds of pages (many liberally sprinkled with anti-Black slurs) to vaguely, dismissively make the point that slavery actually sorta sucks. My mother complained about the inclusion of The Secret Garden in my brother’s middle school reading list, because it contains grotesquely racist descriptions of South Asians. Why are we putting these books on a pedestal instead of reevaluating them and highlighting novels which were written by a more diverse set of people, and therefore might hold wider appeal?
To my high school’s credit, I remember reading two books by Black women: Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Beloved. But this is a paltry start, not even a first step in the creation of a genuinely diverse curriculum. Replace Bradbury with Octavia Butler, Poe and Kipling with Jhumpa Lahiri and Rabindranath Tagore. Encourage students to study traditional folklore from around the globe. Approach the concept of good writing with an open mind, instead of idolising specific styles of writing developed by and for white men. And maybe, just maybe, fewer people will say they don’t like classic literature.